Dusk had turned to dark, and the campground signs faded into the forest. After eking along for an hour, leaning forward to make out the signs through the windshield, I sadly realized I had to set up my first pop-up camper in the dark. Alone.
“Sir,” I rolled down my window. “Where’s Campground B?”
“First, you’re in Campground A. Second, you’re driving the wrong way down a one-way road.” The man stood in front of grill sizzling hamburgers. Tow-headed boys popped out of the camper before their mother told them to wash their hands.
“All you have to do is back up right there and you’ll be headed in the right direction.” I bit my lip as envy arose in my heart toward the man, his burgers, and the picturesque image of his Winnebago-owning family.
“You don’t know how to reverse, do you?” he asked in more of a lament than a question as he noticed my kids in the back seat. Not only had I never put up a camper, I’d never pulled anything behind a vehicle in my life.
“Sir,” I began, “My husband’s in Iraq, and you’re right — there’s absolutely no way I can back this thing up.” I took a deep breath. “But if you support the troops, you’ll jump in this minivan and back it up for me.”
Which, amazingly, is exactly what he did.
My husband’s departure in October 2007 had the same effect on me as the radioactive spider bite had on Peter Parker. Although I can’t scale walls or spin webs, I do have a unique supernatural ability: I can make friends, family, and even total strangers bend to my will.
I first realized it when I was assigned to keep the church nursery — a duty I loathe since I always lose the lesson plan and end up repeatedly singing “This Little Light of Mine” until the kids forget they want to color the walls.
“There’s no way I can tend nursery,” I e-mailed the lady in charge. “My husband’s in Iraq, you know.”
Shockingly, she agreed and never asked, “How does his deployment preclude you from keeping kids 40 minutes a month?”
I tested the limitations of my newfound power and found it surprisingly effective. I can get furniture moved, hedges trimmed, pipes fixed, grass mowed, and traffic violations overlooked. Plus, the headmaster hasn’t complained my kids have been on time only three times this academic year. No matter what the media says about Americans’ supposed opposition to the war, people really are willing to “support the troops” when given the chance. However, just as Lex Luthor could juggle the Kryptonite that debilitated Superman, there are two individuals impervious to my superpowers — my children.
For example, I couldn’t stop my six-year-old son from crying himself to sleep for the first three months Daddy was gone. Also, when my daughter’s teacher said she was acting uncharacteristically sullen, no Jedi mind trick could fix the situation.
Plus, there are other limitations. While Superman could manipulate time to save Lois Lane, the physical world doesn’t bend for me — I can’t slow the kids’ rapid growth or stop their baby teeth from falling out. A lady at church last night pointed out streaks of my hair which had turned gray. “Which is gorgeous highlighting,” another added rather too quickly. And no matter how much I stroke their heads at night, my superpower can’t stop the kids’ lips from quivering at the school program when they sing, “O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife. Who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life.”
In fact, as the days and months wane on, I realize my superpower is no power at all . . . it’s weakness, disguised. I can’t fix a wounded heart, balance a checkbook, or even maintain a cheerful attitude for months on end.
But this frailty is the glorious tension of the American experience. Our unsurpassed military strength is balanced on the narrow shoulders of children learning civic duty before they can even spell “patriotism.” It presses down on the backs of mothers who work extra jobs and fathers who learn to braid daughters’ hair in their spouses’ absence. It’s perched on delicate limbs weighed down under the emotional pressure of putting the cell phone on the sink during a shower and by the pillow at night.
My husband recently e-mailed, “Wars aren’t fought in the halls of Congress, on oped pages, or during dinner conversations. They are fought by courageous but desperately tired Americans living day after day in mortal danger, with families who live with constant fear for their safety and bear the entire burden of their absence.”
However, in a time when kids measure “bad days” by whether their iPods have adequate download space, it’s gratifying to raise children who choke up over patriotic songs. In an era when women measure their worth by measuring waists and bustline, I’ll wear my gray strands of hair like soldiers might wear a bronze star. And in a season when everyone’s critical of our country, it’s nice to know you don’t have to be a superhero to stand for truth, justice, and the American way.
– Nancy French is the author of Red State of Mind: How a Catfish Queen Reject Became a Liberty Belle.